Review: 'The Night'

Iranian horror film follows one couple's hellish journey through the night
EAST & WEST: 'The Night' can be interpreted in a number of ways by American and Iranian audiences.

Just as truth is the first casualty of war, so fun has proven to be the first casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. No Time to Die is postponed to November—just when we all need 007's example of facing death blithely. On March 7, Cinequest was closed for the duration of the festival, with plans for an August reboot. This is tragic all the way around—a hardship for filmmakers and fans who flew here from far away places.

The impromptu closing night of Cinequest was SJSU alumnus Kourosh Ahari's feature film debut. The Night; Ahari previously directed The Secret of 40 and The Yellow Wallpaper, both at Cinequest 2016.

The Night stars Shahab Hosseini, the winner in the best actor category at Cannes for Asghar Farahdi's The Salesman. In The Night, mostly in Farsi with subtitles, Ahari shows his skills as a deft and intense director. It's a story of an Iranian couple with a baby, stranded in an old time downtown Los Angeles hotel of horrors ... horrors of their own making. Babak (Hosseini) had partied too hard and insisted on driving. His wife forces them to find shelter when their car's GPS breaks down. What's inside the hotel—not unseen, but semi-seen—seems to want their child.

The Night is a Iranian and American co-production by Alex Bretow's San Jose-founded Mammoth Picture. It's intended for theatrical release in Iran, and then the rest of the world.

Given the current political crises, it's hard to see films by the new generation of directors following Jafar Panahi (This Is Not a Film), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar) or Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy).

Bretow notes, "We were surprised to find out that many American moviegoers weren't familiar with the renown of Iran's national cinema ... With The Night, we wanted to make something that honored that authentic humanity. Like the Iranian cinema that has come before it, The Night doesn't wear all of its secrets on the surface. We set out to create a film layered in meaning."

Bretow said he was pleased by the response of an audience at the Santa Barbara FIlm Festival: "Many of them wouldn't typically watch Iranian film. We hoped to open their perspectives to a world of cinema ... to stories they didn't know they were missing out on."

One wants to note the levels of censorship in Iran; rules dictate everything from the invocation to Allah on the first title card, to the conduct of the characters. (To be fair, the production code in Hollywood film was deeply restrictive and yet oversaw hundreds of brilliant films.) Bretow and Ahari sent me a note explaining.

"We took care from the beginning to ensure The Night would follow all their standards," they wrote. "After optioning the script, we partnered with Mohammad Dormanesh and his company, Ayat Films in Iran, who helped navigate the censorship process...we found creative ways to work within those limitations."

The final stage involves getting a license from the Ministry of Art and Culture, which Ahari and Bretow await. They add, "The creative integrity of the film and the vision of its director were never sacrificed. We do not intend to release a different version for Iran than we do for the rest of the world."

There may not be anything in The Night to offend a cleric. One could see the drinking, the drug use and some other behavior that would be a spoiler to mention as a sign of the Western permissiveness that brings unhappiness. Conversely, a Western horror movie fan would understand all that as the fractures in a personality that allows the demons in.

Ahari turns the screws ably, conjuring a rich atmosphere of the ominous. Oddly there doesn't seem to be much of a tradition of I-Horror, as it were: Trebow says, "There aren't many Iranian horror films, and the ones that have been made were not very well received. The Night just played the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran last month to very positive reviews. Says Bretow, "One called The Night 'the best horror film in Iranian cinema history.'...Iranian moviegoers haven't had an opportunity to see a quality horror film made in their language. And as a US/Iran co-production, it really is the first of its kind in Iranian cinema."

The Night
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